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23 August 2012
Is Sales an Art or Science – How can we predict Performance Improvement?

Is Sales an Art or Science – How can we predict Performance Improvement?

By Ben Turner @ 05:06 :: 2934 Views :: 15 Comments :: Article Rating :: Featured Articles
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By Mark McCarthy, Director – Meta-Lucid

I sense real change about to occur in the way sales leadership invest in resources to solve performance challenges or opportunities. The change may take months if not years to take place, but it will. I sense change by virtue and interpretation of a number of measures, overall decline in revenues from traditional training companies and what I am picking up in the media-sphere.

Talent Management Strategy

Before I go into detail at a high level and then share with you at a specific case level, I need to provide some context, declarations and some definitions, so that this short article does not fall into one of my many substantial bug bears with industry commenters and their written muses……..lack of meaningful context and reference.

I work for a firm that provides consulting services into the area of talent management strategy in the b2b field based selling sales domain. We do this with a fundamental belief that this is what will give those companies the basis or foundation to achieve the goals they wish for. Our strong point of view is that we custom build all our engagements to meet the unique needs of the customer.

We are very clear that there is no magic wand and very little proven return on investment data in the market place (ie cause and effect, validated independently which if applied could replicate the same results elsewhere). Some would say can this be done? Yes it can, look at cost cutting initiatives or outsourcing. But also don’t confuse a reliable process or theory with ability to execute. We also therefore see luck and randomness as variable that has a strong effect on what happens.


Nonetheless this is not a reason not to experiment, test assumptions and try to understand how you can get your human resources (sales) to perform at a higher level.

Why do I sense a change is about to happen or at least is in the process of happening. I spend a reasonable amount of my time “industry scaning”….it is a thankless, tiring and often frustrating pursuit. I do this for several reasons; what is happening, alternative perspectives, seeking reality, to be better informed. This scanning happens in various mediums, journals, webinars, research symposia, email newsletters, books, portal websites and blogs.

To keep this digestible many “supply side” (training, learning and development, consulting) companies are struggling with their own sales performance, I see more outlandish commentary in the market place, yet more declarations of the “truth”, yet more surveys etc etc. In a recent journal some empirical research was prefaced with this following statement,

“And yet there are barriers to progress in sales research that limit generalizability of our findings, hinder the development of new theories, and create gaps in our understanding that are hidden from general view. Many big questions still plague managers and researchers alike, in spite of the progress made as the field matured.”

My personal interpretation of that statement is that we still don’t know what really works and why in a predictable fashion can be implemented into the commercial reality. For sure there are lots of attempts (and that is good provided that the buyer is not over sold on the outcomes) and that those attempts are correctly set up and implemented.

Just another reference point from American Society of Training & Development, stated that $10 billion was spent on sales skills training per year. Do sales people (reps and managers) require this level of investment? Is this investment being implemented in the best possible way? Also I apologise for using US based reference….there are few if none available for the UK.

Buyer Perceptions

Back to the top of the article. If the suppliers are struggling there can only be two reasons; they have become less effective in convincing the buyer to invest. Or that the buyer has decided that years, if not decades, of training stuff is no longer good enough.

I believe this leaves the opportunity of a paradigm shift to occur in either the buyer demanding something truly different in content and approach or the business model of engagement between the supplier and buyer changes. A bit like what has happened in the software market place when the SaaS model was developed. I am not sure how these paradigm shifts occur, but I sense they are glacial in speed, unless you get some level of discontinuance based interruption into the market place.
At Meta-Lucid, we will be actively pursuing a new business model from which we will commercially engage with our customers. One that, we believe, could be game changing for the future. It is not rocket science and like most things in life, is an adaptation of something else. At the very least, it will shake out for the customer what is what and where to focus their resources and energy in the pursuit of making high performance in the sales force a discipline.

Our belief is there are no sure fire bets, and there never will be in when dealing with people in business; ultimately business is about competitive advantage through execution in a knowledge based economy and that means people doing stuff.

Some do the right things well and some do the right things poorly.  So how sales leadership navigates the myriad of offerings that are out there to what will help them in sustainable knowledge and value creating way……..may just be to ignore them all!

Below is a recent email exchange with Gerhard Gschwandther who is the CEO of online portal “Selling Power”. As you will see I have asked and got his approval to share this brief dialogue. Also please note that this is not a direct lift, in that I have taken out the typo’s and corrected some grammar…it is just an email exchange. I have removed contact details too.

Clearly I do not agree!

please note that the following debate has been provided by Mark McCarthy with permission from Gerhard Gschwandther not from the SalesPro, we would appreciate further comment from our readers in the comments area below
On Jul 20, 2012, at 12:34 PM, "Mark McCarthy" wrote:
Hi Gerhard
I heard you say that selling was a science (41 mins into webinar).
What do you mean and how did you decide the selling was a science?
From: Gerhard
Sent: 20 July 2012 18:50
To: Mark McCarthy
Subject: Re: achieveglobal recent webinar
There are over 1,600 sales software apps that give sales people and managers scientific tools so that they can make decisions based on science, not on hunches. 
On Jul 20, 2012, at 2:11 PM, "Mark McCarthy" wrote:
Hi Gerhard
Are you being serious??
These tools are they test tubes, Bunsen burners, spectrometers, or a microscope??
You appear to confuse tools with science.
Do you possess a better explanation?
Kind regards
From: gerhard
Sent: 20 July 2012 19:28
To: Mark McCarthy
Subject: Re: achieveglobal recent webinar
Math IS Science. Take a look at the progress made with Predictive Analytics, tools like LatticeEngines, Birst, Cloud9, Eloqua, Marketo, Xactly, Varicent, HR Chally, Caliper etc are bringing science to enhance the art of selling. 
I don't mean to be disrespectful but selling isn't about physics and Bunsen burners. The core of all scientific progress is math. 
On Fri, Jul 20, 2012 at 2:06 PM, Mark McCarthy  wrote:

Hi Gerhard
Firstly apologies for my tardy response, I was out for dinner with a scientist….. but this will be my last response…..because this is clearly a pointless exchange.
•        Math/s is a subject, possibly a discipline at first degree level
•        You confuse analytical tools (ie data capture) with the act of selling being a science
•        Art is art……that is why it is called an art……… me someone in science that accepts and can explain how art can become or is a science
•        You miss my fairly rudimentary analogy around the instruments of science and because you have the instruments does mean what you do is science
o   Validity and reliability
You are not being disrespectful in anyway. I never mentioned physics but now you mention it…..again physics is a body of knowledge that expands through the application of science…….in simple terms.
“the core of scientific progress is math”……what the **** are you talking about?!?!?!?
I have just cut this from a google search…….
1. the systematic observation of natural events and conditions in order to discover facts about them and to formulate laws and principles based on these facts. 2. the organized body of knowledge that is derived from such observations and that can be verified or tested by further investigation. 3. any specific branch of this general body of knowledge, such as biology, physics, geology, or astronomy.
So I fear you are confused. The study of selling can be conducted as a science. The practice (doing) of selling is not a science for all the obvious reasons and constraints in the commercial world.
You give both science and selling a dis-service.
I hope you don’t mind if I share this brief discourse with colleagues???
Kind regards
Ps at best the tools you mention below, yes collect data….but then infer a course of action……these are biased loaded mechanisms.
From: Gerhard Gschwandtner
Sent: 21 July 2012 00:01
To: Mark McCarthy
Subject: Re: achieveglobal recent webinar
I recently lead a panel discussion around the question: What % of selling is an art and what % is science. Go and duplicate the conversation and see what you come up with. When you first ask people by a show of hands how many people think that selling is an art, you'll see half of the hands go up, when you ask how many people think that selling is a science, you see the other half. Then you can ask people why they think selling is an art and they will tell you that it is all about creating a new customer. The science part of the audience will tell you that there is human psychology at work, there is body language, there are buying motives and that can all be measured. Then there is sales technology, big date, marketing research, customer experience management processes etc and that's science. You can go on for hours and you will never get people to agree. The "artists" will reject science and the "scientists" will reject the idea of art.
You are getting very boisterous, and that's understandable when you are in an after dinner mood. Please feel free to share this conversation. And enjoy proving your point.
Take a look at how Wikipedia defines science:, and then do your own research.
What does your company do? I went to your website and it sounds intriguing, but your message is rather obscure and the look and feel of your site is a little dramatic.
On Fri, Jul 20, 2012 at 4:41 PM, Mark McCarthy wrote:
Just had a thought and I am happy for you to do this……circulate the exchange below in full at the conference you have in Boston…..thats a platform if ever I have seen one………I am all for feedback.
From: Gerhard
Sent: 21 July 2012 04:52
To: Mark McCarthy
Subject: Re: achieveglobal recent webinar
Would love to invite you to our next conference in San Francisco, Oct.22nd and have you on stage to debate that issue live. Our program is locked in for Boston. Btw we had a Sales 2.0 in London and I asked the same question and about 50% of the hands went up voting for science.
Selling is changing and in the past salespeople defined selling as "persuading, finding a need and filling it, offering solutions etc." now I hear that the customer decides what the role of a salesperson should be. Ex. transactional vs. relationship focus.
All the best
1.       Please excuse the format of the above
2.       I accepted Gerhard’s offer provided him paid 50% of my air fare
3.       I did not get an acceptance.
4.       I can get excited about this matter.
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comment By Ben Turner @ 24 August 2012 12:08
A really interesting debate, thanks to both Mark and Gehard for publishing this correspondence;

Forgive me for sitting on the fence somewhat but I agree in part to both, at a macro level I thionk there can be science involved - i.e. we make a scientific approaqch that by training sales forces that performance should improve or by giving everyone a CRM that positive improvements can be made - prediction more difficult but measurement can be obtained.

However - on a 1 to 1 basis, this is Art. Grant LeBoff once commented that his frustration with training material was that it applies that if a set amount of steps are followed then it will result in a sale, when we know this in not true.

The behaviour and mindset of two individuals (minimum) in this process suggestes that there can be no real predictions made.

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